The following is an adapted excerpt from Briar Levit’s new book, Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design History.
The story of graphic design is not tidy and linear, as it is often presented. Our dominant narratives of one art and design movement leading seamlessly to the next can make conceiving the passage of ideas and events more palatable, but can keep us from understanding what is true. Design history is in reality more of a tree with endless branches and roots leading every which way. The narratives we explore in Baseline Shift form some of the smaller branches on that tree of history. But why do these branches seem small? In 1994, design historian Martha Scotford established a new framework, based in feminist theory, for looking at graphic design history:
Neat history is conventional history: a focus on the mainstream activities and work of individual, usually male, designers. Messy history seeks to discover, study, and include the variety of alternative approaches and activities that are often part of women designers’ professional lives.
“Messy history” would take into account the fact that women have existed under systems with different roles, expectations, and access than those for men. She notes that our study of history must look in the “female frameworks,” as she calls them, in which they were able to create, to find, and to understand their contributions. People such as Scotford, Louise Sandhaus, Lorraine Wild, and Ellen Lupton jump-started the kind of serious research into women graphic designers and theory about them that Baseline Shift continues.
If we look at only the most common sources for information, we’d think there were very few notable women designers. And that’s because during the brief period that the history of graphic design has been seriously and consistently studied, we have been sold the idea that women graphic designers existed only more recently and in very negligible numbers. According to Scotford, the first edition of Philip Meggs’ seminal graphic design history textbook, Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, mentions 15 women designers and reproduces work of only nine of them. Recently, associate professor Brandon Waybright analyzed the gender and ethnic makeup of the 2016 edition of Meggs’ History and found 62 women (and 80 BIPOC people) out of a total 594 designers. He clarified that these numbers come “with a strong caveat—that by and large the women and people of color are included in lists with only their name mentioned and no real historic detail.”
This approach to chronicling history is a limited one. First, it focuses on the people who dominated. As the old saying goes, “History is written by the victors.” In the field of graphic design, the victors were the people who were allowed to go to school, own businesses, join professional organizations where networking and mentoring happen, and enter competitions at will. Not surprisingly, those people were overwhelmingly White men.
In the field of graphic design, the victors were the people who were allowed to go to school, own businesses, join professional organizations where networking and mentoring happen, and enter competitions at will.
The traditional approach to design history also presumes that its students should focus only on artifacts and their formal attributes. While the histories originally published (and reprinted), such as Meggs’, sometimes remind us of design’s impact giving form to history’s content, a contemporary viewing of history (as seen, for example, in Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish’s Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide) examines not only form and technique but spends much more time exploring the reasons for the form, and for its existence at all. Many of today’s design historians aim to place artifacts in the context of the people who made them, the people who viewed and used them, these people’s sociopolitical relationships, and their access to tools and technology. While form remains an exciting subject for investigation, context creates a depth and meaning that can inspire and inform—perhaps to a greater extent—the work we make today.
The good news is that with a little digging in the places that mainstream journals and professional organizations have forgotten—or, more likely, ignored—researchers are confirming that women of many backgrounds and ethnicities were working with a great deal more regularity and intention in the field of graphic design than most would guess.
My new book, Baseline Shift, featuring the research of 19 scholars (in 15 essays), illuminates the stories of these women, offering a counter to the mostly male and White history we’ve been presented. It offers an expansion of the small canon of women in graphic design that is currently trotted out every time someone asks, “Where are the women in design history?” This book tells stories of auteurs and champions of social justice whose names we can now add to the history. It also tells the stories of nameless women who used design to make change, to do business, and to make a living.
This is just one of many projects happening right now with an aim to shine a light on the stories of marginalized or previously ignored designers and associated workers. From an anecdotal perspective it seems clear that we are currently in a renaissance when it comes to the study and dissemination of graphic design history. While there has been a consistent stream of study since the 1980s (check out Graphic Design: History in the Writing 1983–2011 to catch up on some important essays), work has often been published in academic journals and books that don’t quite make their way to mass design audiences, aren’t affordably priced, or aren’t written for the non-academic. But today, more and more practitioners turned scholars have taken up the mantle with an eye toward wider, more accessible dissemination.
Within these female frameworks, in the shadows and sometimes in full view, despite the challenges and hardships, women were typesetting, printing, designing, illustrating, drafting, and more. They were there, too.
In this era of digital tools, historians have so many more ways to access resources and share their research. More archives than ever are digitizing their collections, and some are even inviting the public to contribute, like The People’s Graphic Design Archive (where I am a co-director), giving anyone the chance to decide what history is worth saving and promoting. People are turning their research into documentary films like Linotype, Graphic Means (my 2017 film), and the forthcoming Redesigning Herstory—something that would have been very difficult to do before the so-called Digital Revolution made camera and editing technology much more accessible and affordable. They are also creating podcasts on theory and interdisciplinary design topics like Scratching the Surface and history like Incomplet Design History. Perhaps the most exciting new formats are the workshops and classes that scholars, journalists, and educators are creating online. There is the BIPOC Design History lecture series (one with a focus on Black design in America and one on Latinx design histories), where viewers could attend via Zoom from anywhere (or watch on their own time), listen to the lecture, and then join in the conversation with the speaker and facilitators at the end. Additionally, Futuress, an online feminist design politics site, has hosted multiple study programs virtually that often feature history at their center with research and creative work as an outcome. Both programs have featured an international set of speakers, something much more difficult to offer in a university or any brick and mortar setting. The possibility of exposure to new ideas, histories, and forms, feel limitless and accessible with these new formats!
Between the work published in the pages of Baseline Shift and the programs listed above, one thing has become very clear: Within these female frameworks, in the shadows and sometimes in full view, despite the challenges and hardships, women were typesetting, printing, designing, illustrating, drafting, and more. They were there, too.
Read more in Briar’s new book, Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design History, now available from Princeton Architectural Press.